‘There were people trying to thrive’: How Puerto Rican artists coped with Hurricane Maria | art

wchicken Hurricane Maria It hit the Caribbean in September 2017, and it became one of the worst disasters ever to hit the region. Puerto Rico was particularly hard hit, losing thousands of lives and sustaining the bulk of the $92 billion in damage it caused.

In the five years since then, Maria’s wreck has revealed long-standing challenges Puerto Rico He struggled with, including environmental, political and those related to mental health. Artists on the island have found their own unique ways to respond to a world opened up by crisis, and they are now taking center stage in the impressive new show at the Whitney Museum. There are no points of saleHuracan (The Post-Hurricane World Does Not Exist), November 23-April 23, 2023.

The curator, Marcela Guerrero, told me that in her years of work discovering these artists, visiting their studios and selecting work for show, she tried to find “what I thought was missing from the discourse.” News reports talked about disaster, bureaucracy, corruption, all of these same themes — I knew there was another reality behind those images. There were actually people living, trying to thrive, even making art. The spectacle that I knew was happening in Puerto Rico is almost unknown here in the States.”

entirely, There are no points of saleHuracan It brings together works from 20 Puerto Rican artists, grouped into five major themes that align with the systemic issues exacerbated by María: long-standing problems around the island’s infrastructure, social ills created by tourism to Puerto Rico, and personal trauma and mental health crises caused by the hurricane and environmental devastation. and the political turmoil opened by the disaster.

Armig Santos, Yellow Flowers, 2022
Armig Santos, Yellow Flowers, 2022. Photo: Artist Collection. Courtesy of the artist

According to Guerrero, the art was a crucial way to move beyond the typical disaster porn of news reporting from Maria, allowing her to develop a richer understanding of the realities created by the hurricane. “If I didn’t know anything about PR, I’d get a very unbalanced view of the island. For me, poetry was the first art that helped me think about things in a more subtle and structured way. It was a different reflection. There’s that aspect, what people see and feed on.” On it, and then there’s this other side of people trying to make beauty and art.”

For photographer Gabriela Baez, Making Art After Maria was meant to highlight the devastating – and sometimes deadly – ​​psychological toll caused by the hurricane. Baez and her father struggled with depression after the storm, and this depression eventually caused her father to kill himself just two months before Maria’s one-year anniversary. As Bayes noted, many of these deaths largely go unaccounted for in the official statistics of hurricane-related deaths.

Baez explored the trauma of her personal and family history, pulled archival photos of herself and her father, and stitched them together with red thread to help explain emotional connections not caught on camera. “I was looking back at tangible proof that I could look at it and feel it,” she said. “In that process, I started interfering with these pieces with embroidery. The idea was to look for the points of connection between me and my dad and make concrete the deep feelings I was feeling. These threads tell me a story—they tell me we were physically connected, that he exists, that I can walk around world and finding those connections with him now.”

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Baez shared her belief that the government’s ineffective response to the mental health crisis caused by Maria was a significant factor in her father’s suicide. She also argued that taboos around discussing mental health in Puerto Rican society made it difficult for individuals like her and her father to get the support they needed after the disaster. “Part of my intention with this project is to bring this taboo forward, to talk about my loss and make that as physical as possible,” she said.

Part of the excitement of Guerrero There are no points of saleHuracan It works with artists to present their work in new and exciting ways. For the show, Báez came to New York in order to connect all of her photographs with a red thread, creating an intricate web of interconnections. “[Báez] It always changes the way this work is displayed,” said Guererro. “She wanted to do something that she hadn’t been able to do in other museums, to tie the pictures together with a red thread. Seeing her do this is the most beautiful thing. It’s like this very kind of performative build.”

Showing a different side of the hurricane, artist Sofia Jalisa Morente uses found footage from promotional videos produced to entice real estate speculators to invest in Puerto Rico, creating her own counter-narratives. In this way, Moreente draws attention to how Puerto Rico’s economy serves foreigners at the expense of its own citizens, while also trying to bring new ideas and new angles to long-running debates. “I’m trying to figure out how to open up certain conversations about Puerto Rico, or approach them from an angle that might destabilize already entrenched positions,” she said.

Sofia Galisa Morente, still from Silage, 2020
Sofia Galisa Morente, still from Silage, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Muriente’s B-Roll video collage captures gorgeous shots of Puerto Rico’s lush countryside and beaches, as well as recordings of tourists enjoying shiny meals, along with a wry soundtrack and quotes about the vulture capitalism at play on the island. For Muriente, these two images serve as a way to confront the “endless stream of misery porn that has flooded the media” around Puerto Rico while also bringing together counter-narratives that tell other stories about the island. She’s excited to see the conversations her films open up in Whitney. “For me, one of the best moments about art is when you start to share it and discover other layers of meaning through the comments that you open.”

Altogether, work in There are no points of saleHuracan Reflecting the fact that there is no “normal” to return to Puerto Rico – amid the tragedy and transformation María has wrought, it is the artist’s job to imagine new ways forward. Taking the hurricane itself as the show’s central metaphor, Guerrero imagined it as all-encompassing—a prospect that was once both frightening and full of opportunity. “I was thinking of Maria as a symbol of this vortex that you can’t escape from,” she said. “You weren’t given the luxury of getting out of this. It triggered the idea of ​​always being stuck in a never-ending spiral.”

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